How Does the NBA Draft Lottery Work?

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The ping-pong balls of the NBA Draft Lottery on May 16, 2023, decided to go San Antonio’s way. This gives the Spurs a chance to be, not just relevant but compete for championships for years if they inevitably select Victor Wembenyama first overall. But some may wonder, “How does the NBA Draft lottery work?” After all, the Spurs were not even the worst team in the league in the 2022-23 season, yet they were rewarded handsomely.

This article will delve into the inner workings of the NBA Draft lottery and more.

What is the NBA Draft LotteryWhat is the NBA Draft Lottery?

The NBA Draft Lottery is an annual event held by the National Basketball Association (NBA) to determine the draft order for the upcoming NBA Draft. It is a system designed to give teams that did not make the playoffs a chance to obtain higher draft picks and potentially select top-tier talent.

Some may think the Draft Lottery is a way of rewarding tanking, but there is no tangible way to help improve a bad team in the long run and encourage parity. Not every team attracts the best free agents, so one way to be better in the long term is to develop young players, even though it means losing a lot of games. Teams that didn’t make the playoffs are automatically included in the lottery giving them a shot at immediate improvement.

For instance, in 1996-97, the Spurs finished the season with a 20-62 record and won the right to pick first in the Draft. They selected Tim Duncan and immediately reversed their fortunes by making the playoffs 18 consecutive times in Duncan’s tenure along with five NBA championships.

Carmelo Anthony also proved to be a lifesaver for the Denver Nuggets. The team won only 17 games a season prior, but Anthony’s arrival made them an immediate playoff squad in 2004. 

When and Where is the NBA Draft LotteryWhen and Where is the NBA Draft Lottery?

The NBA lottery happens every May, around a month after the Playoffs start. In 2023, the lottery occurred on May 16, while in 2022, it was held on May 17. The NBA Draft lottery has been held in either New York or Chicago in recent years. The 2021 Lottery was in the Big Apple, while the 2022 and 2023 editions were held in the Windy City.

Even though the draft started after the league’s inception in 1947, the lottery process was only borne in 1985. Up until 1984, the draft was determined by a coin flip. The Houston Rockets were the last franchise to win the draft that way, a pick that they used to select Hakeem Olajuwon. 

The NBA instituted the lottery to disprove claims that the Rockets and several other teams had been intentionally losing games throughout the regular season to secure the lowest record and, thus, the opportunity to be selected first overall. It hasn’t wholly silenced the critics, but it’s undoubtedly better than the coin toss method, which only rewarded the team with the worst record in each conference.

How Does the NBA Draft Lottery WorkHow Does the NBA Draft Lottery Work?

If you know how a lottery plays out, it’s easy to understand how the NBA Draft works. So, how does the NBA Draft Lottery work? 

The whole process involves the 14 teams that did not qualify for the playoffs in the previous season. These teams are assigned a certain number of combinations based on their regular-season records. The team with the worst record receives the most combinations, increasing their chances of securing the top pick, while the team with the best record among non-playoff teams receives the fewest.

Since the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, teams with the three worst records each have a 14% chance of winning. The fourth and fifth-worst teams have 12.5% and 10.5% chances, respectively. That being said, strange things have happened in the lottery. For instance, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2014 edition even though they only had a 1.7% chance to nab the top pick. In case you didn’t remember, that pick became Andrew Wiggins.

There are a total of 1,001 combinations inside a ping-pong ball machine, and each team is assigned a specific four-number combo based on their pre-determined chances. That means the teams with the best prospects have 140 combinations each. In the 2023 NBA Lottery, Detroit, Houston, and San Antonio had 140 combinations, but the basketball gods were smiling on the Spurs that night.

Four of the fourteen balls presented in this draw are chosen randomly to decide the winners of the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 picks. The teams’ regular season records determine the rest of the sequence.

How Many Spots are in the NBA Draft LotteryHow Many Spots are in the NBA Draft Lottery?

The lottery only has four spots to “win”–the first four picks– but the 14 teams that didn’t make the postseason all have a chance. Hence, the term for the first 14 picks in the actual draft is called the “lottery” and the teams that didn’t make the postseason are called “lottery” teams. 

In the 2023 NBA Draft lottery, Charlotte climbed up to No. 2 even though they only had the fourth-highest number of combinations. Portland had the fifth-best odds but was selected to pick third, while Houston has a three-way share with San Antonio and Detroit for the highest odds and dropped to fourth.

The NBA lottery draft results had the Pistons unable to secure any of the four top picks and were automatically relegated to No. 5. No NBA draft lottery odds simulator would have predicted that!

How Many Picks are in the NBA DraftHow Many Picks are in the NBA Draft?

There are a total of 60 picks in the NBA Draft. It is divided into two rounds for 30 picks each, even though some second-round picks may be forfeited by teams. The two-round format started in 1989, much shorter than the league before and most professional sports. In comparison, Major League Baseball has 20 rounds, and the NFL has seven. 

The eligibility of draft prospects was also changed. Before, high school players such as Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James were allowed to throw their hats into the draft ring.

Now, the prospects must be at least one year removed from high school, although they could choose to go through different routes. Some may attend college, while others play professionally in the G-League or other overseas basketball organizations.

How is the NBA Draft Pick Order DecidedHow is the NBA Draft Pick Order Decided?

As mentioned, the first four picks are based on the NBA lottery draft results. How does the NBA draft lottery work? 

All 14 teams that did not make the playoffs are assigned combinations, but the three worst clubs are given the best odds. Fourteen balls are selected among these, and four combinations are drawn, determining the order of the first four picks. 

The win-loss records determine the rest of the lottery and the first round, with the worst teams going earlier than franchises with better records. The last pick of the 2023 Draft should go to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the best overall record in the 2022-23 season. However, they traded that to the Rockets to acquire P.J. Tucker back in 2021.


Because of more deals, the Rockets conveyed the pick to the Clippers after the three-team trade that involved sending Eric Gordon to the Clippers, and Danny Green (from Memphis) and John Wall to the Rockets.

How is the sequence of second-round picks determined? It’s still decided using teams’ reverse win-loss records, but this time around, playoff teams are already included. With these considered, the Bucks have the 60th pick in the draft with Boston and Denver, the second and third-best regular seasons, picking before them. However, the Celtics and Nuggets second-round picks have already been involved in previous trades.

More NBA Draft Lottery MiraclesMore NBA Draft Lottery Miracles

By far, the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the 2014 Draft lottery was the unlikeliest of the bunch. However, it wasn’t the only time a team with one of the lowest odds won the lottery. Here’s more:

  • While the Cavs jumped from No. 14 to No. 1 from a crazy twist of fate, something similar happened in 1993 for Orlando. They got the fourth-worst chance that year at 1.52% but was drawn at No. 1 to earn the right to draft Chris Webber. The Magic then traded Webber for the No. 3 pick Penny Hardaway and a couple of future first-round picks.
  • The Chicago Bulls in 2008 drew a stroke of luck, going from ninth to first. They then picked Derrick Rose No. 1, and three years later, the ultra-athletic guard became a league MVP before injuries stunted his career arc.
  • 2011 was a crazy Draft Lottery. The Clippers won even though they only got a 2.8% chance, but they had to convey the pick to the Cavs because of the Baron Davis-Mo Williams deal. The Cavs’ own pick went from second to fourth, but that wasn’t a bad deal at all with the luck they had. They used the No. 1 pick to draft Kyrie Irving and No. 4 for Tristan Thompson.
  • In 2000, the New Jersey Nets selected Kenyon Martin No. 1, but they only had a 4.4% chance in the lottery. On the flip side for the Nets, the 2000 Draft was considered one of the worst in recent memory.
  • Destiny has a ridiculous way of giving and taking it all. The Portland Trail Blazers experienced both in a span of a few years. After luckily drawing the right to draft Greg Oden No. 1 in 2007 with only a 5.3% chance, the big man sadly succumbed to knee injuries in only two seasons. 

Wrapping Things Up: How Does the NBA Draft Lottery Work?

The NBA Draft Lottery system has brought a form of parity among the league while not completely rewarding tanking. It gives all 14 non-playoff teams a chance, with the highest odds going to the teams with the three worst records from the season prior.

So, how does the NBA Draft Lottery work? All 14 teams are given four-number combinations based on their pre-determined odds. Since there are 1,001 combinations in the lottery, the top three teams each have 140 pre-assigned combos. Fourteen balls are picked from the combinations, and four are chosen at random to decide the winners of the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 picks. The rest of the picks are determined by the reverse order of the regular season records, including the second round.

We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.

Hoops Addict
Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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